There must be something about living on the edge of the world that motivates New Zealanders to push the boundaries when it comes to digital creativity.
Surrounded by water, the flora and fauna of the country diverged into a natural ecology unlike anywhere else in the world; the unique human culture arose in a similar fashion. New Zealand has long been the beneficiary of sequential waves of migration. They came first in long canoes from the Pacific then in tall ships from Europe. Now the face of the country is changing again from the benefits of recent Asian immigration. Each of these waves has contributed something special to the societal blend.
In the mid 19th century, settlers had to wait months for provisions to arrive from Europe and were often driven to fashion their own tools and implements in order to get their work done. Necessity has endowed New Zealanders with a hardy sense of self-sufficiency and a willingness to “muck in” and get the job done. This is as true on the sportsfield as it is in the creative industries. Indeed, research suggests that New Zealand is one of the most entrepreneurial nations on the planet; and especially so for the indigenous peoples.
It is these characteristics that have attracted the attention of the Hollywood entertainment industry in recent years. Wellington is home base for Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and most of that movie was shot in various locations around New Zealand. Jackson also has a stake in Weta Workshop, the Oscar award winning special effects house, and Park Road Post (Board Member Michael Stephens is attending both the XML Suzhou and Wellington Labs).
Apart from LOTR, Weta has been involved in providing high spec digital graphics effects for King Kong, X-Men, and forthcoming Avatar movies. Spinoff company, Massive Software provided the CGI magic for these movies and many others and now sells its services across the industry. Another digital innovator is Sidhe Interactive, responsible for developing some of the hottest games to be found on both Xbox and Playstation. Consequently, moves are now afoot to establish a Centre of Excellence in Wellington for screen and digital technologies. This entity will be responsible for bootstrapping cross-sector investment, mentorship and collaboration.
Wellington has also become home to another growing tribe of digerati. Australasia’s busiest e-commerce site TradeMe is headquartered in the Capital city. The company was itself traded in 2006, with media conglomerate Fairfax controversially paying $700 million for the trading website. However, the business and technologocial expertise built up through developing TradeMe has now percolated outwards, helping to grow a new generation of local technology start-ups, especially in the hosted software space. So it is very much within an encouraging local context of digital and cross media creativity that we frame the Wellington X|Media|Lab event. We are very proud to have TradeMe founder, Sam Morgan, as a Mentor in the Wellington Lab.
Wellington itself is a compact city of only 150,000 residents wedged between Cook Strait to the south and jutting hills to the East and West. Hutt City and Porirua are near neighbours only a few minutes drive to the north. The extraordinarily beautiful natural harbour is a centrepiece for the entire region. The administrative capital of New Zealand, Wellington has also emerged as a focus point for arts, music and cafe culture. Mindful that the city must compete with other Asia Pacific centres for people, ideas and capital, the city has repositioned itself as a “must see” destination full of museums, restaurants and cultural events.
Further afield, there are also other enclaves of digital innovation coupled with startling natural scenery.
Auckland is the home of Nextspace, a 3D graphics thinktank and mentoring venture supported by the government and highly successful Right Hemisphere. Down south in Christchurch is HitLabNZ which researches and commercialises human/computer interface technology such as virtual reality and simulation. Further south again, in Dunedin, is the home of Animation Research, provider of graphics depictions for the Americas Cup events. The city also has a cluster of exciting new technology companies within its Upstart technology incubator.
So why hasn’t New Zealand become the Finland of the South Pacific? In many respects the two nations began with a similar economic base and comparable population. But whereas Finland diverged away from agricultural commodities and tourism, these remain the backbone of New Zealand’s income and, unlike in Finland, there is not a market of 400 million at New Zealand’s back door. Achieving scale and attracting capital have always been challenging for even the most promising and hard-working of New Zealand technology firms. Therein lays both a challenge and an opportunity for investors, mentors and global connectors.
Interestingly, we already have more than 70 projects nominated – and plenty of those are red-hot quality commercial propositions. With this level of creativity, originality, and innovation, plus the usual amazing line-up of International Mentors, XML Wellington is going to be one of the very best yet.
[Many thanks to Paul Spence, the director of GeniusNet, a Wellington based technology management consultancy, who kindly wrote most of this post. e: firstname.lastname@example.org]